The Centre of Excellence in Aizawl has been designed to play the role of cradle for young ones chasing a bright future in the beautiful game
Iguess God blessed me; that’s why I got selected,” says Phijam Vikash Singh, citing divinity to explain how he found a place at the Centre of Excellence (CoE), the residential football academy in Aizawl where the Tata Trusts have unveiled a scheme to groom fledgling talents in the sport dearest to Northeastern hearts.
But Vikash, all of 15, has got his deduction wrong. The supernatural has nothing to do with how this Manipuri lad from Imphal came through a rigorous and extensive scouting-and-trials process to win a coveted spot at the state-of-the-art Centre, which offers a quality academic education alongside lessons in football to 28 boys in the 12-15 age group.
A fan of Manchester City’s Spanish star David Silva and the rock band Metallica, Vikash is more on the ball when looking ahead. “I want to be a professional player and I’ll become one by working hard,” he says. What about the classroom part? “My studies are going okay but remembering all those dates from history is tricky.”
Vikash will have to solve that problem and others, too, in order to help the Tata Trusts make good on their goal with the programme: to nurture the sporting, educational and personality characteristics of a carefully chosen bunch of promising footballing talent from the region by providing them with the best possible coaching, infrastructure and schooling.
This is the first batch of trainees at the Centre, which began its journey in early 2017 with a scouting mission that covered Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Assam. In excess of 3,000 boys participated in the first phase of trials in these states. Candidates were shortlisted and brought together for a six-day camp in Aizawl before the final selection.
The geographical setting is the reason why the majority of those inducted into the programme are from Mizoram (16 of the 28) but the Trusts have gone the distance in searching out kids from other parts of the region. Seven of the boys hail from Manipur, four are from Assam’s Bodoland — a fertile place for football to flourish — and one is from Nagaland.
The Mizoram government and the Mizoram Football Association (MFA) are partners in the CoE project, which operates out of space granted by the Mizoram Police. The Northeast Initiative Development Agency, the associate organisation of the Trusts that implements the programme, has built the facilities for the Centre and refurbished the adjoining ground where the boys practise. The trainees themselves don’t have to shell out anything (they, in fact, get compensated once selected).
The collaborative facet of the endeavour is further highlighted by the contribution of the Aizawl Diocesan Education Society, which has provided teachers from the Holy Trinity School it runs to ensure that the academic learning the boys receive keeps pace with their football coaching. Personality development and community service are on the menu as well for these student athletes.
Simply put, the Centre’s objective is the all-round development of the children, not just how much of the game and its nuances they can imbibe. “We want to make sure that the boys enhance not only their footballing and education knowledge but also their communication and IT skills,” says Renthlei Malsawma, the manager of CoE.
It’s more serious still on the football side. Nutrition, physiotherapy, psychology, recovery sessions — the Centre offers all of these and then some to the trainees. What counts for most, though, is technique and the honing of it. “It’s always technique first; everything else — tactics, formations, maturity — comes after that,” says Bitan Singh, CoE’s senior assistant coach.
Mr Singh should know. A former professional with wide-ranging scouting and coaching experience at the junior level, he has high hopes for the boys at the Centre. “They are talented and it’s talent that we are focusing on,” he says. “Mentality is important here. We are moulding them into players who want to win, who understand both attack and defence and who can transition from one to the other fluidly.”
The boys spend two hours every day with the football coaching — the studies part takes up four hours, Monday to Friday, and there are extra classes for spoken English — and evidence of their on-field quality has become clear. The team sits in top position in the inaugural under-15 league organised by the MFA and one of the trainees, Thlacheu Vanlalruatfela, has made it to the Indian team in his age category.
As for the future, the plan is to lay out a path for the boys to be absorbed into a professional club once they cross the age-16 threshold. Across-the-board expansion is also on the Centre’s agenda. “We want to increase the number of students to 30 next season,” says Mr Malsawma. “If all goes well over the next five years, we should have our own setup, an additional under-19 group and up to 50 boys in the scheme. And perhaps even a similar academy for girls.”
What lies beyond the horizon will, to an extent, depend on how kids like Bapen Yimjong shape up in the days ahead. “This place has turned out to be better than what I expected,” says the 14-year-old CoE cadet from Dimapur in Nagaland. “I hope I can become good enough to play for India someday.”
Children playing cricket is a commonplace sight across much of India. Not so in the Northeast. Folks here have a preference — nay, an unbridled ardour — for the game more beautiful, and it shows in every nook and cranny, every spread of green or brown of the region.
It was only a matter of time before the rest of the country understood this reality, and that time has well and truly arrived. Which may explain why, for instance, the side that India fielded in the last under-17 World Cup had 10 players from the Northeast.
Tapping the source of such passion and making the most of the advantages it delivers is the objective of the now-thriving grassroots football programme being implemented by the Northeast Initiative Development Agency (NEIDA), a nodal organisation of the Tata Trusts.
A collaboration that involves the Mizoram chapter of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan — an Indian government programme aimed at universalising elementary education — the Mizoram Football Associate, Aizawl Football Club and NEIDA, the grassroots initiative has more than 3,000 children, including about 300 girls, in the 6-14 age group learning and training to play the game better in 60 academies in six districts of the state.
Thanks to scrupulous preparation and the dedication of those who did the groundwork, the grassroots initiative, which kicked off in 2016, has progressed smoothly from its baby-step days to become entrenched in the communities where it has taken root. “Getting qualified coaches was an issue in the early days but we have got over that bump,” says Jacob Lalthazuala, senior project associate with NEIDA.
Having more girls in the programme is a priority for NEIDA now and that will happen in the next phase. By then, NEIDA expects, the total number of kids in the project will be between 6,000 and 7,000.